Categories: Self-Management

Inappropriate Behaviors? Maybe Not. The Paradox of Coping Strategies

Sometimes, the child (or adult) with ADHD is criticized for inappropriate behavior, when the behavior is actually their way of coping.  This is an important distinction for teachers and parents to understand.  Before assuming that a child is being rude or undisciplined, ask them ‘why’ they are acting in a certain way.  Some behaviors seem counterproductive, but may prove to be compensatory strategies.  Here are some examples:

Eye/Ear Coordination

Your child complains that his teacher thinks he wasn’t paying attention in class because he wasn’t looking at her when she was speaking.  You explain that people like to know they have someone’s attention when they are speaking, and that eye contact is the most common way to show you are listening.  “But I WAS listening,” he insists.  He probably was.  We know that for many people with ADD, direct focus on a speaker doesn’t translate into better processing of what the speaker is saying.  In fact, the visual distraction sometimes makes focusing on what is being said even more difficult.  Similarly, the person with ADD who doesn’t appear to be attending may be picking up every word said (ask any parent who has said something they didn’t want their child to hear, thinking the child wasn’t listening!).  Explain to the teacher that eye contact is not indicative of ear contact. Even those educators who are knowledgeable about ADD may find this concept difficult; especially since it makes them feel ignored when they’re trying to communicate.

However, the child’s insistence that he’s listening should still be monitored for accuracy!  One effective way of doing this, especially for parents, is to ask your child to tell you what you just said in his own words.

Hand-to-Brain Activity

Your child complains that she got in trouble for getting up during a class lesson.  “It’s not fair,” she complains.  “I have all of this energy and can’t concentrate unless I can move.” She may be right.  Discuss alternatives to getting out of her seat.  Often, channeling the “fidgets” into hand movement works, and allows the brain to focus on what the teacher is teaching.  There are squish balls that can be manipulated quietly, plastic paper clips, putty that doesn’t dry out (the “egg” putty is a lot less expensive than the therapeutic putty), etc.  Once you’ve found something your child agrees works, let the teacher know.  Explain that the hand activity actually calms, and it’s not “playing around” in class.  However, do set limits on what activities are acceptable when the teacher is speaking (doodling is okay, reading a catalog is not!).

Find ways for your child to legitimately get up from her seat and move.  Ask if she can be the class messenger, board eraser, or paper-distributor – anything that will allow her to.  Also, remind the teacher that it is important for everyone to get up and stretch periodically.  Many classrooms in Japan have 5 minutes of group calisthenics every 45 minutes or so, which has been shown to improve academic performance.

Music to Study By

You tell your child to turn off the music so he can focus on his homework.  He says that it helps him to focus. He may be correct. Sometimes background noise (such as instrumental music or a ‘white noise’ machine) calms the brain, so that it is less likely to ‘drift,’ making it easier to concentrate on schoolwork.

There is a lot of research being done in this area, and a growing number of music products are being sold as conducive to promoting various states of mind (alertness, focus, creativity, calmness, energy, etc.).  Think about it.  How much easier it is to do housework or yard work while listening to lively music that makes you want to move!   However, do check what your child is actually listening to – talk shows and certain types of music may give him the incentive to sit and work, but it is unlikely he’ll absorb what he reads or really concentrate on problem-solving!

Also, sitting at a desk may not be the best study spot.  Many children (and adults) enjoy reading while sprawled out on the floor, or even in bed.  It is said that Albert Einstein would do his schoolwork while sitting UNDER his desk, since it helped him to block out distractions.

Encourage your child to explore different ways of doing homework, and remember that what works for them may seem unconventional to you!


Susan Lasky is a Board Certified and Senior Certified ADHD Coach.


Susan Karyn Lasky MA SCAC

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